Beruf = Duty, Calling, Profession

Himmler stood by a mass grave,
got splattered with brains as his men
shot into the bodies below, piling up
in layer after layer, blood flowing
freely as water. Was there even
a moment’s remorse?

No, although he did regret
seeing such a sight, soiling
his hands. Having ordered
should have been enough
of a Beruf. Pontius Pilate
did not watch crucifixions.

There is never a shortage
of war criminals. Pol Pot
killed millions. Their faces
still stare out of portraits,
snapped as they were led
to the next room, an abattoir.
On a rainy day I wander in
to an exhibit where they
have been mounted on walls,
treated as art.

Our own victims remain faceless,
incinerated, blown off the earth
from miles high, by airmen
who do not have to face them —
not as the S.S. with his machinegun,
not as the Khmer Rouge
or Death Squads trained
at the School of the Americas.
We have not had to deal with bodies
for years. We have been spared
the obscenities. We have not
had to wash brains off our glasses.

David Ray

David Ray is a well-known American poet as well as an award-winning fiction writer. His awards include a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship and several P.E.N. Syndicated Fiction awards. He is the author of 23 books, including
Hemingway: A Desperate Life. His new and selected poems, titled Music of Time, offers selections from 15 previous volumes, several of which received national awards. He is also the author of The Endless Search, a memoir. He is a founding editor of New Letters and now lives with his wife Judy, also a poet, in Tucson and continues to write poetry, fiction, and essays. He is an emeritus professor of the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s English department. David Ray cofounded Writers Against the Vietnam War in 1966. “Beruf” is from his collection One Thousand Years: Poems about the Holocaust, published by Timberline Press in 2004 and reprinted by permission. His website is


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